Spirituality

Seriously… how can death be “unexpected”?

The decisive question before us is not “How shall I prepare for death?” but “How shall I prepare for eternity?”

Having spent nearly all of my childhood and most of my adult life in violent cities and rough neighborhoods, I’ve always expected to be mugged. I’ve always expected to be blindsided and robbed. Even so, when I am mugged, it takes me by surprise.

I’ve been thinking about unpleasant surprises because I’ve recently buried dear ones who died unexpectedly. Twice in the past few months, I’ve received calls that began, “We regret to inform you that…” In both cases, it was like being mugged—a sudden, shocking loss that I tell myself should not have surprised me. Grief, regret and confusion rush in, and there seems to be no place to put them. How might a Christian respond to such things?

As Father Lorenzo Albacete wrote, “The cruelest response to suffering is the attempt to explain it away, to tell the one who suffers: ‘This is why this is happening. I’m sorry that you can’t see the answer, but it’s clear to me.’” We must resist the temptation wrap the pain and ugliness of life and death in a soft and shiny wrapper, blunting the sharp edges and hiding the bloodstains.

Likewise, we must resist the temptation to offer practical “remedies.” Christians ought not be adding to the well-intentioned litany of “5 Things to Do When You’re Feeling Blue” or “Happy Help for Helpless Mourners.”

Yes, we should take the death of loved ones as a reminder of the uncertainties of life; we should pray daily that we may receive the sacraments before we die; we should recall that we will take no earthly possessions into the afterlife. But even all that is not enough.

As we observe the death-dealing sickness and violence around us, wondering “When will it be my turn?”, we must recall that we who live through time must pass through death to enter eternity. The decisive question before us is not “How shall I prepare for death?” but “How shall I prepare for eternity?” By sin we squandered our eternity; by his death and resurrection Jesus won it back for us. Thus the best way to prepare for eternal life with God is to die and rise with Jesus in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Our good Heavenly Father blesses all that is given to Him in worthy sacrifice, above all His only-begotten Son. In other words, those who wish to live forever with God must in this life live for and from the Eucharist, for and from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and with urgent charity we must invite others to do the same. When we invite others to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the way of death and life that it demands, we are not inviting them to a mere celebration, however noble, or a mere meal, however festive, or to a mere fellowship, however delightful. We are in fact inviting them to a way of dying, rising and living that will kill what is unworthy within them and have elevated to divine life whatever of the remainder that can be transformed into Christ. We call our neighbor to salvation and to the greater glory of God not by facile slogans or the flush of easy enthusiasms but by the way of the cross, by fidelity unto death, and into the unexpected yet prophesied and accomplished victory which is the resurrection.

So (like many of you, perhaps) I’ve been “mugged” by unexpected death recently. The vision of freshly-dug graves is still fresh in my mind. Not all of the tears have been dried. Assuming that we wake up tomorrow, we will have to face another day, and—ready or not—move one more step towards eternity. Unless our Blessed Lord returns in glory before then, someday someone will be walking away from my new grave. Between now and then, I will walk from the cemetery, to the altar, and then to my daily duties. The wisdom of the saints tell us that is the best way to prepare for death and for eternal life.

Meanwhile, I hope that you might find comfort, as I have, in the words of a prayer written by Blessed Rupert Mayer, S.J.:

Lord, let happen whatever you will;
and as you will, so will I walk;
help me only to know your will!
Lord, whenever you will, then is the time;
today and always.
Lord, whatever you will, I wish to accept,
and whatever you will for me is gain;
enough that I belong to you.
Lord, because you will it, it is right;
and because you will it, I have courage.
My heart rests safely in your hands!

When I write next, I will offer a meditation on despair and hope. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

 

Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ

 

Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has taught and lectured in North and Central America, Europe and Asia and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.  He has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation and now works in seminary education.